At the 2017 US Open, 128 men vied for main-draw berths by entering the qualifying tournament. Of those 128 hopefuls, 26 had college ties. Fourteen current or former NCAA players ultimately competed in the men’s or women’s main draw, six via qualifying. The late-summer Slam was akin to a grand college reunion.

“With the average age of the Top 100 being 28 years old,” says former University of Virginia player and former University of Central Florida coach Philippe Oudshoorn, “college tennis seems increasingly more attractive.”

College has always been a pathway to the pros—among others, John McEnroe won an NCAA title—and the tours are brimming with alumni. We sat down with six former student-athletes to get a better understanding of why that is.

Jennifer Brady, 22 (Two years at UCLA; career-high No. 65): College was a change from the academy regimen I had followed since I was 13. I had a lack of results in the juniors, and I wasn’t ready to risk turning down an education to jump into something I had not fully prepared myself for.

Lisa Raymond, 44 (Two years at Florida; 1992 and ’93 NCAA singles champion, former doubles No. 1): My family and coach always left that decision up to me. It was never, “OK Lisa, you aren’t going to college, you’re definitely going to turn pro, and this is why we’re investing in all this.”

Eric Butorac, 36 (One year at Division I Ball State, three years at D-III Gustavus Adolphus; ATP Player Council President): I had trouble even getting recruited to college. I was never in the Top 100 in the United States. Pro tennis wasn’t even on my radar until spring of my senior year.

Jamie Loeb, 22 (Two years at North Carolina, 2015 NCAA singles champion): I was one of the top juniors and wanted to go pro. But at the same time, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for college, and going on scholarship was a great opportunity for me to grow and mature as a person.

John Isner, 32 (Four years at Georgia; part of undefeated 2007 NCAA championship team, career-high No. 9): There was actually no decision for me. The thought of going professional never crossed my mind early on, so the only decision was where to go to school.

Isner: I matured in college. It got the partying out of my system. It’s something that you can’t afford to do on the pro tour. And of course, as a player, I continued to get better and better each day I was there.

Butorac: You really start learning how to compete. When you play junior tournaments and high-school tennis, you win almost all of your matches, most of them very easily. I feel like once you get into college tennis, it’s the first time you get sorted out to your approximate skill level.

Raymond: It taught me so much: discipline, time management, how to play on a team. For me, team play was something I thrived in. That’s probably one of the reasons I’ve always done so well in doubles. I love being out there with a partner and working together.

Brady: I had to adapt to the student-athlete lifestyle, where the student part was more important than the athlete part. It forced me out of my comfort zone and helped me to become more responsible and independent.


College has helped shape the careers and lives of many pro players

College has helped shape the careers and lives of many pro players

Isner: Winning the team championship in Athens, GA. I remember how perfect the weather was that day. The crowds were tailgating and we had 6,000 people at our matches. I hate to sound cocky, but we were absolutely dominant.

Loeb: It was beating Stanford in the semifinals of NCAAs my freshman year. We had never beaten them before. It came down to me. I was playing Kristie Ahn and lost the first set, 7–6. I remember turning to my coach and saying, ‘I’m going to win this.’ I somehow won the next two sets love and love. It was a great feeling.

Todd Martin, 47 (Two years at Northwestern, CEO of International Tennis Hall of Fame): My sophomore year was the first time Northwestern won the Big 10 championships in forever. That was impactful—to see the joy in everybody’s eyes, especially in guys who I knew were never going to play tennis again.

Isner: I lost in the individual NCAA final, 7–6 in the third. That was—maybe still to this day—the toughest loss of my career. But it was a blessing in disguise because it made me work harder in the summer. I didn’t rest on my laurels at all. I didn’t have that guaranteed wild card into the US Open. I earned the wild card in 2007 by virtue of winning a lot of matches that summer.

Butorac: In my junior year we were the top seed and we lost to Emory in the NCAA semifinals. The match was on my racquet, and I lost 7–6 in the third in a match I should have won. I would do anything to have changed that. However, I think that loss is sort of what propelled me to where I am today. I started understanding that I never want to feel like that again. It was a life-changing moment.

Raymond: I really can’t think of any bad memories that I’ve had on the court. I had such a great experience with coach Andy Brandi, who to this day I’m very, very close to.

Brady: My worst memory is one of the all-nighters I pulled to study for a final in a theater class!


College has helped shape the careers and lives of many pro players

College has helped shape the careers and lives of many pro players

Loeb: I always wanted to go pro. After I won NCAAs my sophomore year, it was the right time. I got to play in the US Open and it was a great opportunity for me. And I can still go back and finish my education, which is a big plus.

Isner: Sometime during the course of my junior year, I became the No. 1 player in college, and I knew that I wanted to go pro. At that point, I wanted to give it a shot.

Brady: I played some professional events in the summer and fall after my freshman year, and I finished the year ranked in the high 200s. I enjoyed that time away from school, and knew I wanted to build off of that and start playing full-time.

Raymond: Absolutely. It was without question one of the best decisions, if not the best decision, I have ever made in my life. Those two years helped build me into the person I am and the tennis player I became.

Isner: Absolutely. For whatever reason, I made the right decision. Whether it’s luck or not, it all worked out for me. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Martin: I would say yes. I’m not one that believes in regret, and I believe that we learn from our mistakes and thank God we make them. In my sophomore year, I really felt like I hit the ground running from a

successful summer. I really benefited from having those few months to focus on tennis and detox from the stress of my freshman year of college. At the same time, if I were to do it all over again, and somebody told me you had to play college tennis for at least three years before turning pro, I wouldn’t have lost any sleep over it. That would have been just fine. I was slow in developing success as a professional, and another year in college would have helped.


College has helped shape the careers and lives of many pro players

College has helped shape the careers and lives of many pro players

For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime.Click here for more Heroes stories.